The Five Percent Solution


On November 2, every registered voter in New York will have the power to decide whether our mayor will have his way in refashioning the city charter—our local constitution—in his image. Just as last week’s City Hall Park rally for the home team featured a huge banner reminding us that ‘Mayor Rudy Giuliani Salutes the New York Yankees,’ every voting booth should have one that says ‘Charter Revision: A Rudolph W. Giuliani Production.” That characterization is not just being made by opponents of the 14 proposals that have been lumped into one ballot measure, but by the mayor himself.

“If you like what I’ve done for New York City,” Giuliani writes in the nonpartisan voter guide that voters should have received from the Campaign Finance Board, “vote ‘yes’ on November 2nd and make these reforms permanent.”

Charter Revision Commission chair Randy Mastro adds that this is “a referendum on preserving the successes the city has had in recent years and not going back to the failed policies of the past.”

Giuliani is counting on his personal popularity among the handful of New Yorkers who will go to the polls in this off-off year election and the attraction of a laundry list of changes that begins with “‘gun-free’ school safety zones” and safety locks for all firearms. The proposal is also sweetened with clauses about making the Human Rights Commission—an agency Giuliani once wanted to eliminate entirely—a charter agency; “simplifying” procedures for awarding contracts; making the Administration for Children’s Services an “independent agency”; “protecting immigrant rights” to access city services; and requiring “executive coordination” to “prevent domestic violence.”

Deeper in the proposal is a clause that would require the City Council to muster a two-thirds supermajority to pass any tax increase or new tax and a four-fifths vote to override a mayoral veto on a tax issue. (Property taxes are exempted, lest the referendum alarm Giuliani’s core constituency.) The proposal would also limit spending increases “generally to the rate of inflation” and mandate that 50 percent of all surpluses be put in a fund to pay down the city’s debt.

“Of the 14 items in the proposal, two are constitutional and the others public relations gestures that have no place in charter revision,” says Conn Nugent of Citizens Union, the 102-year-old-civic group that endorsed the mayor for reelection in 1997 (‘fact for which I have received unbounded grief,” he adds). The group’s chair, attorney Ogden Lewis, calls the fiscal terms “imprudent and unnecessary.” Indeed, adds Nugent, the only people coming out for the proposal are “those that want to be on the right side of the mayor.”

Those folks include, most prominently, borough presidents Guy Molinari of Staten Island and Claire Shulman of Queens, as well as conservative councilmembers Noach Dear, Martin Golden, and James Oddo.

The opponents of this charter revision package include Public Advocate Mark Green, Comptroller Alan Hevesi, Council Speaker Peter Vallone, borough presidents Fernando Ferrer (Bronx) and C. Virginia Fields (Manhattan), Ruth Messinger, congressmember Jerry Nadler, most council members, District Council 37, the United Federation of Teachers, and virtually every good-government group alive (and some that have come back to life on this issue): Citizen Action, Citizens Union, Common Cause, NYC Americans for Democratic Action, the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), People for the American Way, and the Women’s City Club of New York.

Some of that opposition is due, says Neal Rosenstein, the Government Reform Coordinator of NYPIRG, to the fact that the proposed changes “could dramatically effect the balance of power” in city government, taking away much of the power gained by the City Council in the 1989 charter reform process.

Led by East Side Democrat Gifford Miller, the Council convened a Select Committee for Charter Reform that not only opposed this proposal, but called for amending the state’s Municipal Home Rule Law to “prevent mayors from using charter revision commissions to upset the system of checks and balances and to circumvent the normal legislative process.”

The original quarry in this whole enterprise, convened by former deputy mayor Randy Mastro and a host of mayoral cronies in late June, was Giuliani nemesis Mark Green. If Rudy beats Hillary for the open U.S. Senate seat next year, he does not want Green to finish his term. That “personal vendetta,” as Green calls it, did get some public attention for charter revision. “We outdebated him and he retreated,” Green says. “The whole proposal has gone from being obnoxious to offensive.” He has helped organize a grassroots campaign called “No on 2” to defeat the proposal, hoping that the public has “Giuliani fatigue and is weary of government by enemies list.”

The clause on mayoral succession now calls for a system to begin in 2002 that lets the public advocate succeed to the mayoralty within 60 days, then requires a special election with no party labels—and a run-off if nobody gets 40 percent of the vote. It also strips the public advocate of not just the power to break ties in the City Council, but removes him or her from presiding over Council meetings.

Predictions on the outcome of Tuesday’s vote are little more than feelings. “There’s no way to predict or poll when there’s only a 5 to 10 percent turnout of eligible adults,” says Green.

NYPIRG’s Rosenstein is “gloomy” and thinks Giuliani will have his way because of the “clever” wording of the proposal and the lack of organized forces against it. Citizens Union’s Nugent “would have said it would fail two weeks ago,” but feels that even the Campaign Finance Board’s official mailing “confers legitimacy on the pro side” and is worried about the lack of union involvement and what he calls “radio silence” from Comptroller Hevesi and other leaders.

According to Andy Inglesby, assistant political director of District Council 37, the union’s new leadership has been phone banking against the proposal since September, will have twice mailed to its members and retirees urging a no vote, and will send 400 volunteers to leaflet polling places on election day in coordination with the UFT and Central labor councilmembers.

Barbara Rochman, public policy VP of the Women’s City Club, is more hopeful than optimistic that the proposal will be defeated. Her appeal to voters? “Show that you’re smarter than you’ve been given credit for and vote no.”

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